By Bill Hudson

By Bill Hudson, WCCO-TV

WALKER, Minn. (WCCO) — It’s one of Minnesota’s winter traditions that mixes craziness with creativity. Where else will you find people curling with “ice” stones using frozen eelpout for handles? Walker’s annual International Eelpout Festival on Leech Lake can easily draw crowds of between 4,000 to 7,000 spectators and anglers.

But the upcoming festivities on Walker Bay will look a bit different this year. Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch has no choice but to restrict motor vehicle traffic onto the ice due to deteriorating ice conditions.

Beginning at 8 a.m. Friday, ice roads leading out of Walker Bay will close to all cars and trucks.

“With that amount of weight and the pressure on the ice and the consistency of the ice this year just isn’t what we normally have and that’s the biggest concern,” said Burch.

Participants who wish to use their own ice house are advised to pull it out before Friday morning. After that, only snowmobiles and ATVs will be allowed to travel onto the bay. The restriction will be lifted when festivities end on Sunday afternoon.

Still, lingering warm weather promises that anglers and spectators will still have to cope with many patches of slushy, water-covered ice. Trucks and cars are being prohibited both from a safety standpoint, as well as to limit the concentrated pressure that would force more water up through cracks and thousands of ice fishing holes.

Meantime, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are urging extreme caution to anyone venturing onto area lakes. A fly-over on Wednesday revealed the Crow River has mostly open water. Many spots on the popular Lake Minnetonka are becoming weakened by constant warm temperatures.

The sheriff is warning anyone driving a vehicle on the lake to use extreme care and to check ice conditions daily. Just over the weekend, a backhoe doing work along the shoreline broke through the ice on Halstad’s Bay. Two snowmobilers also went into open water near Six Mile Creek and St. Alban’s Channel. 

“We’ve had reports of snowmobiles going through, pickup trucks going through in southern Minnesota so it’s time to watch out and maybe think about not driving on the ice right now,” said Tim Smalley with the DNR.

The ice road leading out of Excelsior Bay appears more ready for boats than ice houses. It is covered with water and slush, making for tricky maneuvering in a truck. 

Smalley said it’s a good idea to call area bait stores and resorts if you plan to head out for some late season angling.

He adds to call the day of your planned trip, “because ice conditions are changing that rapidly.”

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